Michael B. Curry: Christian leaders need clarity of a gospel vision

Bishop Michael Curry

Image courtesy of The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

Evangelism, racial reconciliation and creating disciples of the “Jesus movement” are top priorities for the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Updated: Bishop Curry was installed Nov. 1, 2015, as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Michael B. Curry knows that he has to be the CEO of the Episcopal Church; that job has to be done, and done well.

But the more important work, he said, is as “chief evangelism officer.”

“I was elected in this particular moment, I think, because there was a converging perspective that for our church, our work in this mission moment is the work of evangelism and the work of racial reconciliation,” he said.

“We’re talking about evangelism that is as much listening to the faith stories of others as it is sharing our own.”

That’s the vision he plans to share as he prepares for his Nov. 1 installation as presiding bishop. Curry, who has served as the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina since 2000, will succeed current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. He will become the first African-American to hold the position.

Curry, 62, earned a bachelor’s degree from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and a master of divinity degree from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

In his time as bishop, Curry has been active in issues of social justice, speaking out on immigration policy and marriage equality and participating in Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also served on the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church. Curry is the author of the book “Crazy Christians.”

Curry spoke with Faith & Leadership about how he plans to lead the Episcopal Church and how he is preparing for his new role. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned in North Carolina for your future work as presiding bishop?

Clarity of a gospel vision may be the most important thing that anybody can bring to the table.

Clarity does not mean rigidity. It doesn’t mean that that can’t evolve and develop, too.

But clarity of a gospel vision can enable both a person as a leader and an institution, a community, to have a sense of direction or purpose that enables it to evolve and change and adapt and move forward.

Leaders flounder, institutions flounder, because you don’t know where you’re going. Even if you don’t know exactly where it is -- like Moses, you’re going to wander around in the wilderness for 40 years -- the point is you’re still heading toward the promised land.

Q: What has your vision been here, and how is that shifting as your job shifts?

When I first came, I used the language of the Diocese of North Carolina beginning to see itself self-consciously as a “missionary diocese,” committed to the work of living into God’s dream, following Jesus into God’s dream by making disciples who actually make a difference in the world.

In time, that vision became a vision of the church as a profoundly inclusive community built around baptism and following the teachings of Jesus.

And so that led us into looking into what does it mean to be a truly catholic church. It means to be truly universal and profoundly inclusive with an inclusion that is as wide and as generous as the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross.

Then that vision took another evolution. This church has to go out and be the presence of Christ intentionally -- not just accidentally, but intentionally -- in the world beyond the church and in partnership and relationship with other people, following where the risen Christ has already gone, and meeting him there.

In the last few years, we’ve used the metaphor of Galilee as a way of getting at that in the gospel. In Matthew in particular, when the women go to the tomb after the resurrection, they get to the tomb and the angel tells them, “He’s not here; he’s risen like he said.” And then the angel says, “He has gone ahead of you to Galilee. Go and tell the disciples he’s there; there you will meet him.”

And so it’s our job now to go and meet the risen, living Lord, Jesus, who has already gone ahead of us into Galilee, into the world, this Galilee of the 21st century -- to meet him there.

And so it has a consistent evolution, but it started out using the language of “missionary diocese.” And it’s now gotten to the point of here’s how we’re doing that now, going to Galilee.

Now, how does that translate to the Episcopal Church or to me as a presiding bishop?

I was elected for a lot of reasons. I was elected in this particular moment, I think, because there was a converging perspective that for our church, our work in this mission moment is the work of evangelism and the work of racial reconciliation.

And when I was a nominee, I took a risk in one of the things I wrote, knowing that I might not get elected, depending on who read it and how they read it. I remember thinking, “This is who you are, so go ahead and say it.”

The question was something like, “The presiding bishop is the chief executive officer of the Episcopal Church; how would you see yourself carrying out those functions?”

Obviously, when you’re a leader of an organization like a church, or any organization or institution, there are executive functions that have to be carried out, and must be carried out well.

Anyway, I said, “But I see CEO in another way. In this mission moment, the Episcopal Church needs a CEO that’s not simply a chief executive officer; we need a ‘chief evangelism officer.’ And so that’s what Michael Curry would seek to do and to be for the Episcopal Church.”

Q: What are the steps as you pursue that vision?

Well, the first one is to actually say it.

I’ve used the language of the “Jesus movement.” We are the Episcopal wing of the Jesus movement, if you will. Jesus did not start an institution; he started a movement.

Now, the church and institution evolved over time for historical reasons, and I’m not saying that that’s not necessary, but that’s not what was started, and that’s not what was intended.

The church, the institution, the organization, exists to serve the movement. And so how do we reclaim that movement? Well, part of that movement is reclaimed by real discipleship, by forming people as not simply just members of a church but as disciples of Jesus, committed to following his way. That’s the movement stuff.

The kind of cultural shifts that Andy Doyle and Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass talk about -- the shifts are happening.

You can’t navigate that simply trying to be an institution, one institution among others. It’s the Christian movement that can help the institution actually find its life, not the other way around.

So the first thing I’m going to do is articulate that and keep that message going, and our work of forming disciples and work of evangelism, in a way that’s authentic to us as Episcopalians.

We’re talking about evangelism that is as much listening to the faith stories of others as it is sharing our own. It’s about going out where Christ already is in the lives of other people. God’s already been in people’s lives.

So there will have to be some very practical things related to that. How do you help, and both energize/catalyze and empower/equip the church to do that?

Well, the fact that we’re even talking about it, and that the Episcopal Church is talking about it, and that the General Convention puts significant funding behind that, is significant. We’ve never done that before, not seriously. And so that’s really remarkable. I didn’t have anything to do with that. The convention did that.

The same thing with the racial reconciliation. The convention put serious funding behind that.

Leadership is not done by one person. This is going to be something where the staff of the church, where the people and the leaders of the church, are going to come together and we’re going to shape this thing together.

It’s not going to be a “Michael Curry Show”; it’s going to be “The Episcopal Hour.”

Q: And yet at the same time, you will be the head of this institution. What do local congregations need from the denomination? What is it that only the national church can do?

I think one of the things will be the clarity of a gospel vision that can be shared by all.

And then there’s some resourcing that can happen on a churchwide level. And part of that may be networking and connecting people to resources and people who are already in existence.

I mean, one quick example I can give you: in the Diocese of Texas, Andy Doyle’s diocese, they’ve been doing some real work around inviting, welcoming and connecting people as a way of helping Episcopalians do evangelism.

They’ve had an effort on faith sharing, where small groups of people in a church come together and share their faith stories. They also end up listening to the faith stories of others, and learning a way of listening and sharing that actually is the entree for evangelism.

That’s how it happens, out of relationships between people, not where I’m trying to make you come to my church. It happens where we get into the deeper spiritual thing where your faith story and my faith story meet.

And that sets the stage for the Spirit to do what the Spirit’s going to do. And at that point, you’re off the hook; it’s up to the person and the Spirit. That’s a way of evangelism that we in the mainline can actually do. That’s authentic to us.

What the churchwide organization can do is connect that local congregation to that faith sharing. We don’t have to invent it. When you bring people together and they start sharing with each other, everybody starts learning, and then the whole system can actually energize itself.

Q: How do you know when you’re there? In this time of great change, declining membership, all these concerns, what does success look like in the church?

We don’t have adequate metrics right now to have a sense of how are we doing. We’ve got to come up with some more-creative metrics to figure out what are we actually doing. That’s going to take some better brains than mine to figure out, but it can be done.

Average Sunday attendance tells you something, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you how many people are worshipping.

And so, for example, just something like shifting from average Sunday attendance to average weekly or monthly worship, finding how many people are actually participating in various worship events in communities, not just on Sunday but through the week. How many people are participating in Bible study? How many people are in prayer groups? How many people are involved in service through the church -- service, witness and outreach through the church?

And how many are involved in ways of service in the world that’s not directly tied to the church but that’s an outgrowth of their faith?

All Saints Pasadena has done it with their congregation, trying to figure out how are their people living out their discipleship and how is the church supporting them in that, and evaluating that.

Q: You’ve mentioned racial reconciliation a number of times. How do you lead racial reconciliation in an Episcopalian way, and how do you evaluate whether you’ve made any progress?

That one is a little like asking how will we know when the kingdom has come. It will be obvious, I guess, at that point!

You probably evaluate societal outcomes. I mean, you can do polls, I suppose.

It’s not as clear as saying, if you’re Martin Luther King and it’s 1965, “Our goal is to get a voting rights bill passed.” When the voting rights bill has passed, you’ve accomplished your objective. What is more difficult to measure is when attitudes have begun to shift, and when relationships are actually being built.

How a church would evaluate its impact on racial reconciliation probably would be more on the [order of] having some way of evaluating programs.

If there’s some clarity about here’s what we’re trying to do -- not trying to save the whole world, but we’re trying to do X, Y and Z -- you can evaluate did we do that, but you also have to do it program by program.

There are some dioceses and congregations that are actively involved in racial reconciliation work right now, and one of the things that we will be attempting to do is bringing the people who are already doing the work, bringing them out into the light of day.

And you’ll get the agenda from that. Not from a top-down kind of thing, where a presiding bishop or anybody else says, “This is what we’re going to do.” It will emerge up.

Q: What questions are you asking as you make this transition? Who are your conversation partners? What books are you reading?

On the one hand, I’m scaling down, withdrawing as the diocesan bishop here. That shift involves saying goodbye to the diocese.

The other part, in terms of winding up, there are some practical kinds of stuff that I’ve had to do. For example, I’ve asked the House of Bishops to appoint two vice presidents rather than one. And so the three of us spent time in conversation together with some consultants who gave us two days.

Q: And what kind of consultants were they?

They’re really more management consultants; they deal with large corporate groups and executives. So it was really more organizational, but the nice thing was they came at it as Episcopalians, as people who care about the future of the church, and really did get the spiritual dimension of the work we’ve got to do. And so it was time well-spent.

So we’ve done that, and I’ve done some reading. I’ve held off most of the briefings until I really get there, because the first priority was to say goodbye to the people here and do it in a good, thoughtful way.

I’m now at the tipping point, where I’ve tipped in the other direction. This morning I was working on the sermon for Nov. 1.

And I’ve been doing some reading for that, not so much specifically for the sermon, but doing a little bit more reading around evangelism.

There was one particular book I wanted to look at, and it’s finally out. Andy Doyle just published a book called “A Generous Community.”

Q: What was important to you about the book?

It was nice to have somebody bring together the shifts in the cultural trends in one simple book. He summarized the cultural religious landscape, from increased ambiguity, the volatility of the culture -- I mean, all the usual stuff, but it was done in less than a chapter, which was helpful.

And he did it all under the rubric of the church as a generous community, and it’s that generous community that has the capacity to transcend times and various cultural circumstances, because that’s a place where people can actually find their life in Christ.